Today I taught a mini clinic for a fellow trainer. When I started with the group, I asked them to tell me what they usually do in a typical warm up. They had a few random replies to my question but nothing concrete. Then, almost as a side note, one of the riders said this “I don't really like to warm up on my own, I really like to have my trainer here to tell me what to do.”
Often what I find is that many riders don't really know what it is they're supposed to be looking for and asking for from their horse. Riders hear “Get him in front of your leg!” so they think kick, or they hear “He’s going too fast!” so they think pull. Warm ups and flatwork in general are many times treated as a necessary part of the ride but something to get past as quickly as possible and get on to the fun stuff like jumping.
This lack of understanding by the rider can easily lead to miscommunication, confusion and frustration for both horse and rider. With that formula there’s only one possible outcome, somebody (horse or rider) is a winner and somebody is a loser. What I'm hoping to accomplish is to give riders of any discipline (but especially Hunter/Jumper riders) the basic skills to understand what their purpose is when they get on their horse, how to communicate properly with the horse and to clearly know what the rider’s job is and what the horse’s job is. With this understanding, both can be in harmony and leave each ride feeling like it was a win-win situation for both horse and rider.
When I get on a horse, be it green or an educated old-timer, I always like start with the first three elements of the Training Scale.* The horse’s ability and willingness to allow me to influence these three elements gives me direction as to what the horse is ready for next. The same thing applies to teaching riders.
We start off with RHYTHM (the bottom/foundation of the training scale)
The question you need to ask is this: Does my horse have a nice basic rhythm? (The question applies at any gate.) We start off at the walk, looking for a nice rhythm. If the horse is hurried, use circles of different sizes to help slow the rhythm without needing to pull. If their rhythm is too slow, encourage the horse forward with our leg and voice. This idea of having a good rhythm is carried though in everything we do, especially in jumping. How often is the problem with a rider that is on-course not having enough pace? Pace is another word for rhythm. If we didn’t establish a good rhythm from the start of our ride, we shouldn’t be surprised that it is lacking at the canter when we are jumping.
Once we have a Rhythm appropriate to where we are in the ride then we go on to SUPPLENESS
Suppleness, in its most basic form, means that if I apply a small amount of pressure to one rein, the horse should give a little bit on that side of their mouth. The pressure should come from a squeezing type action of the rider’s hand. There is no reason to “pull” at this point.
If I squeeze a little on the right rein, the horse should move their head a little to the right. If I squeeze a little on the left rein, the horse should move their head a little to the left. I know it may seem too simple but truly that's all we're looking for in the beginning of a ride.
Also, this is the time to recognize if your horse is stiff on one side of their jaw. If you squeeze and get a rigid response in return, then you know you have something to address. A horse that doesn’t give to the most basic suppleness test is not going to turn well further along in the ride. In my experience, issues like this are typically caused by one (or both) of two things.
Dental: Your horse may have teeth that are catching and do not allow the jaw to move freely. Having you horse checked and treated by an experienced equine dentist can work miracles.
Chiropractic: Your horse may have a chiropractic issue in their head and/or neck. Have a licensed chiropractor on your team asses your horse and treat them regularly.
Once I have Suppleness on both sides of the horse’s mouth, then I can start to establish CONTACT. Contact only means that I am equally touching both sides of the horse’s mouth. I don't have pressure and I don't have slack, it's that happy place in between. It would be the equivalent of two people holding hands where you can't necessarily tell that one is holding the other, but you know that they're connected.
Even contact in both reins is crucial for the next progression of your ride. You’ll be adding impulsion (creating more power) and you’ll need to have established somewhere to capture this power. That is the job of the Contact. It creates a boundary that will begin to influence the shape of the horse and the horse’s energy.
RHYTHM, SUPPLENESS AND CONTACT, these are the basics of any warm up. A clear focus on these three things will prepare my horse for the more difficult things I may ask of them as the ride goes on. It will also tell me so much about how the rest of my ride is going to go. If I encounter a problem anywhere along the way, I simply go back one step and reestablish the missing element then continue with your ride.